A response to Hunter S Thompson on meaning and living the good life
A young Hunter S Thompson
My fictional letter was written in 2015 in response to a famous one written by Hunter S Thompson to his friend Hume Logan in 1958. My letter imagines the response of Hume to his friend Hunter. Hunter S Thompson's original letter can be found at the bottom of this article.
May 5th, 1958
Your letter, of which I have re-read numerous times, has been an anchor to my thoughts over the past week. You write that only a fool would let himself give advice to another, I suppose only a fool would ask another man how he should live his life!
My letter to you is a reflection of my own dissatisfaction and so I took your suggestion and read up on Sartre; and Existentialism more broadly.
“Existence comes before essence.”
I suppose this phrase is an arc across what you wrote in your letter last week and which is the basis of, as you call it, your credo.
So, we have no core essence in us, no centring counterweight or default setting. We are simply the sum of our experiences and our perspective is coloured by all that we have known? Sartre found this a liberating thought as it means we are not constrained by who we THINK we are, or what we have experienced, rather we are completely free to invent ourselves and as such, carry a burden of responsibility to do so.
It is this burden on my shoulders, which has caused me to write to you and shamelessly ask for your help in bearing it! I have all the knowledge inherent within me to make a choice and yet I am asking you to help me!
I know you well enough to know you are convinced by Sartre’s belief and I want to be convinced by it too, however his nihilistic vision of humanity does leave me a bit cold.
This way of living requires an iron will and the inner strength to be able to swim against the tide. If we are simply the sum of our experiences then who we are, our entire perspective, and the framework for which we make decisions is shaped by what has gone before. Whilst we have a certain freedom, we are not truly free because the decisions we make are based on the information we glean from the experiences we have and some of those experiences will have closed doors on us, for better or worse.
I like Sartre’s premise that we are unencumbered to choose our own morality, but I am not one hundred percent convinced that this individualistic framework for making decisions will allow us to make better ones. Isn’t that why I am writing to you? So your advice will allow me to make a better decision than the ones I have already made?
You say in your letter that a “man must choose a path that will let his abilities function at a maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his desires” and whilst I completely agree with this sentiment, I think that the handle for everything is in the KNOWING of what those desires are.
How can we truly know what we want? You say that the goal must conform to the man, that we must not adjust our lives to a goal which is ever shifting with our perspective, and yet our desires, the core of what pushes us to act as we do, is also constantly shifting. If we cannot pin down our desires, then we cannot set a path to achieve them and more worryingly, cannot maximise whatever abilities we have.
If we have no essence and are simply the sum of our experiences, then our self along with our desires is continually changing. The consequences of this is that any life we build for ourselves will be built on the shifting sands of our fluid perspectives.
This world view, depending on which side of the fence you sit, is a bleak one in my view. This hyper-responsibility that our true self is purely our own creation, ties in with the individualistic culture we live through. If there is no ‘essence’ to what it is to be human, then there is nothing for us to rally around, and yet we organise into collectives almost by instinct, because we want to be a part of something greater than ourselves.
It is for this reasons that I think we are more than the sum of our experiences.
Our foundation is our heredity, all the way back to our ancient ancestors. I believe this heritage and the experiences of our ancestors and what they learned impacts how we behave in a way that is subconscious, but which we implicitly understand but can’t articulate. Our desire to organize into collectives – religions, communities, families – stems from our universal ability to see a small part of ourselves in each other.
So, whilst we are free to choose and have a responsibility to do so, our choices do not exist in a vacuum and there are numerous factors which colour our judgement and constrain those choices. Despite this I know that we must make a decision, taking action despite the inherent uncertainty, otherwise we will be in the nightmarish scenario of having our decision made for us by circumstance.
Once again your letter has been a great totem for my thoughts and has allowed me to get these thoughts onto paper. I don’t plan on counting myself among the disenchanted for much longer, it is time to start connecting the dots.
April 22, 1958 57 Perry Street New York City
You ask advice: ah, what a very human and very dangerous thing to do! For to give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal— to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.
I am not a fool, but I respect your sincerity in asking my advice. I ask you though, in listening to what I say, to remember that all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it. What is truth to one may be disaster to another. I do not see life through your eyes, nor you through mine. If I were to attempt to give you specific advice, it would be too much like the blind leading the blind.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles … ” (Shakespeare)
And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect— between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.
But why not float if you have no goal? That is another question. It is unquestionably better to enjoy the floating than to swim in uncertainty. So how does a man find a goal? Not a castle in the stars, but a real and tangible thing. How can a man be sure he’s not after the “big rock candy mountain,” the enticing sugar-candy goal that has little taste and no substance?
The answer— and, in a sense, the tragedy of life— is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.
So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?
The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.) There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.
I’m going to steer clear of the word “existentialism,” but you might keep it in mind as a key of sorts. You might also try something called Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, and another little thing called Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre. These are merely suggestions. If you’re genuinely satisfied with what you are and what you’re doing, then give those books a wide berth. (Let sleeping dogs lie.) But back to the answer. As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.
But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires— including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.
As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).
In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.
Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN— and here is the essence of all I’ve said— you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.
Naturally, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. You’ve lived a relatively narrow life, a vertical rather than a horizontal existence. So it isn’t any too difficult to understand why you seem to feel the way you do. But a man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.
So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”
And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know— is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.
If I don’t call this to a halt, I’m going to find myself writing a book. I hope it’s not as confusing as it looks at first glance. Keep in mind, of course, that this is MY WAY of looking at things. I happen to think that it’s pretty generally applicable, but you may not. Each of us has to create our own credo— this merely happens to be mine.
If any part of it doesn’t seem to make sense, by all means call it to my attention. I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that— no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life. But then again, if that’s what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it. You’ll have lots of company.
And that’s it for now. Until I hear from you again, I remain,